With his wide, doe-like eyes, outsized bat ears and tiny body, Peter the Chihuahua is the very definition of cute. To see him, you'd assume he enjoyed life as a beloved family pet.

But Peter's history is far from happy. Jacqui Darlow, his owner, adopted the little dog 18 months ago after he'd been abandoned for the second time.

When they met, far from being cheerful and contented he was trembling and terrified.

The cause of his psychological problems? Jacqui suspects it's because he was previously confined to a handbag.


"Handbag dogs" have become a highly fashionable accessory, thanks to the many celebrities who own miniature dogs: from actress Jennifer Lawrence to model Miranda Kerr, singer Joss Stone and actor Hugh Jackman.

These are the dogs that, even if they don't literally live in a bag, are small enough to be toted around in one and are nearly always photographed being carried by their famous owners.

Their tiny paws, it seems, are rarely allowed to touch the ground.

Sadly Peter isn't alone in his plight.

According to recent research by a number of animal charities, handbag dogs are being abandoned in record numbers.

Until recently, a visit to a dog rescue centre meant seeing row upon row of abandoned Staffordshire Bull Terriers with a few mongrels - large and small - alongside them.

Nowadays though, the picture is very different. Yes, there are still some Staffies but increasingly their place in the cages are being taken by much smaller, much furrier and - some might say - much cuter canines.

For rescue centres throughout Britain are being overrun with "handbag" dogs - tiny little creatures with big, adoring eyes, so-called because you can carry them around.

Pugs, Pomeranians and other small breeds are turning up at sanctuaries which, just five years ago, had never seen them before.

This month animal charity Blue Cross warned that handbag breeds were about to become the most dumped dogs in Britain. The number of Chihuahuas in their centres has doubled in four years, while they see fewer of the larger breeds.

The RSPCA has reported an astonishing 11-fold increase in the number of bichon frise-crosses entering its animal sanctuaries since 2012. And while many will find new homes, others face a lifetime in kennels - or even being put down.

So why are these dogs being abandoned? Far from being a cute accessory, they are very high maintenance, and require training, contact with other dogs and playtime. Without these basics, they may become bad-tempered or even start biting.

This isn't appreciated by all potential owners, who often see no further than the dogs' big eyes and cute proportions.

"Handbag dogs are seen as a bit of a fashion accessory that you can buy different clothes and collars for," says Julie Stone of Blue Cross.

"They also often have facial characteristics like children - squat faces and big eyes - that brings out a nurturing instinct in people.

"But they're not portable toys. A lot of people struggle when they realise they have to be house trained and need company.

"They wanted something pliable that will do what they want.

"But dogs need to interact socially with other dogs and get frustrated if they can't, which can lead to nipping or biting."

What's more, they abhor being put in a handbag.

Hannah Macey, a spokeswoman for Dogs Trust, explains: "It's not natural . . . Not only is the dog's vision restricted but it can't balance in the bag.

"And its instinctive fight or flight response is curbed, because it cannot physically run away."

Peter's owner Jacqui, a 40-year-old digital marketing manager at Dogs Trust, knows only too well the psychological damage such unnatural circumstances can inflict.

Jacqui, who is single and lives in North London, says she didn't immediately fall in love when she met the two-year-old Chihuahua.

"He wasn't very affectionate. Instead he was shaking and scared.

"I brought him home in a cat carrier and he wouldn't get out of it for two weeks.

"He didn't understand what a collar was, know how to walk on a lead or understand basic commands like 'sit'." Jacqui is certain he behaved like this because he spent much of his early life in a handbag - the property of someone with little idea of how to care for an animal.

"Dogs go through periods of being in favour", says Julie Stone of Blue Cross. "When a breed becomes popular, you do see more of them in rescue centres.

"People get them without realising how much work a dog can be. They buy them on the spur of the moment, then find out a small dog is just as much work as a large one.

"Part of the problem is that it's now so easy to buy them. Previously, if you wanted a Pomeranian, you'd have to find a reputable breeder and go on a waiting list.

"But now there are so many unscrupulous breeders advertising on the internet, you can buy one at the touch of a button."

Many have no idea of the health problems small dogs are susceptible to. For example, pugs often have breathing difficulties because of their short muzzles and a condition called entropion, where the eyelashes fold inward and scrape the eye.

And the more popular breeds become, the faster they are bred on puppy farms to meet demand, and the more likely they are to suffer sickness and hereditary problems. "Many of these dogs are now suffering because they are being bred for quick sale," says Gudrun Ravetz of the British Veterinary Association.

But health is not the only issue.

At the end of 2014, 27-year-old Lisa Berney-Smith saw an image of bichon frise puppies a friend had posted on social media.

"I saw that picture, fell in love and decided one of them would be mine," she says. "I'd never had a dog before and thought it would be different, a bit of fun. But it was a stupid decision."

After parting with more than £500 for a pedigree, she bought home the two-month old puppy, Alfie, and almost immediately ran into difficulties.

"For the first month it was lovely because he was still a baby and didn't really do much," says the mother-of-two from Croydon.

"But he grew up quickly and became demanding.

"I'd made assumptions before I got him - that because he was so small, he'd be easy to look after.

"He wasn't. One of the main problems was the grooming. Bichon frises have very thick, fluffy white fur that grows incredibly fast and you're meant to brush them up to four times a day. If not, it knots and becomes matted.

"But I didn't have time - it was hard enough to find the 20 minutes needed to clean him when we got back from a walk. He'd come back black even if we'd just stuck to pavements.

"Because of this I'd take him to the groomers every fortnight, but it was expensive - £30-£40 a time. Alfie hated it and would howl when we took him."

Alfie also suffered from terrible separation anxiety whenever Lisa left for her job as a trainer for a pensions firm.

"He needed constant companionship and whenever he was alone he'd chew anything wooden - cupboards, skirting boards, doors. He'd have accidents in the house when we weren't there to let him out to go to the toilet."

Nor had she understood how often he would need exercising, and struggled to walk him more than once a day. "He'd get stressed so I'd put him in the garden, but I felt so cruel," she says.

"I could tell he was unhappy and after three or four months I knew we couldn't go on.

"I held on for another couple of months - because I loved him so much it broke my heart to think about giving him away."

Eventually Lisa and her husband Jamie decided to advertise Alfie on a pet website for £50.

"We wanted a family with a stay-at-home mum because that's what Alfie needed," says Lisa.

They found the perfect family who were experienced dog owners.

"Alfie happily walked off with them and didn't even give us a backward glance," says Lisa.

Heartbroken, she now admits: "I just wish I'd researched it more thoroughly beforehand. I made a lot of wrong assumptions and it wasn't fair on the puppy."

Even those who do their research can struggle.

Mother-of-two Laura-Jane Barnell bought two Chihuahuas - Nemo and Dexter - from a pet website last year.

"I wanted Chihuahuas because they were small enough for the children to pick up and cuddle," she says. "I did a lot of research. I discovered they're hard to toilet train, so I got tips from friends. I thought I was prepared.

"But the one thing I hadn't taken into consideration is how small and delicate they are - especially when they're puppies.

"My four-year-old son Lennon would pick Nemo up by the neck or the leg and I'd be terrified he'd drop and hurt the dog or it would bite him. He wasn't being malicious - he was too young to understand."

Both Lennon and his older sister Lexie, then six, were utterly obsessed with their pets, wanting to pick them up and cuddle them all the time.

"The dogs were overwhelmed and would run away to sit on my lap," says 40-year-old Laura-Jane, from Hartwell, Northamptonshire.

Toilet training, with two young children in the mix, proved far harder than she had imagined, and after just a month she began questioning her purchase. "I didn't know how to overcome the problems. I was so stressed, I was thinking 'I can't cope.' It was awful."

Laura-Jane moved quickly, thinking that as the dogs were still puppies they'd be easier to re-home.

She advertised on a local social media site and found a young woman who was an experienced dog owner to take them on.

"I was distraught when they went and I didn't tell the children until after they'd gone. Lexie was terribly upset but within ten minutes Lennon was playing with his toys. I just wish I hadn't done it at all."

Thankfully, Peter's story has a happier ending. Despite being so timid at first, within three weeks he'd begun to show Jacqui affection, jumping on her lap for cuddles.

Now she says: "He's the most adorable little thing ever - I love him to bits."

If only every dog that ended up in a rescue centre was so lucky.